October 2, 2017

The iPhone Didn't Kill the Landline Telephone, the Internet Did

People born after the 1980's really have no idea of just how big or important the company once known as AT&T (an acronym for American Telephone and Telegraph Company, which began as a company back in 1885) truly was.  In fact, the company today known as AT&T was actually one of the original "Baby Bells" (Google that term if unfamiliar) known as Southwestern Bell/SBC, which changed its name to AT&T in 1995, fueled in part by its acquisitions of several (not all) rival baby bells including San Francisco-based Pacific Telesis (a.k.a. Pacific Bell) which served California and Nevada, and Chicago-based Ameritech serving a big portion of the industrial midwest, and Atlanta-based BellSouth which served the southeastern U.S.  It also consolidated ownership of a wireless carrier once known as Cingular and renamed that AT&T.  That means that in spite of having the same corporate name and some of its assets, it's not the same company.

After nearly a century of operating as a "natural" monopoly, Federal antitrust regulators started to investigate the original AT&T's monopolistic, anti-competitive practices starting in 1974, which culminated in the 1982 decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to break the company up (which would happen by 1984), effectively killing the old "Ma Bell" (another term to Google).  That closed a very long and storied chapter in American corporate history.  The original company known as AT&T also gave rise to such important entities as Bell Labs, the historic laboratory which was created by the late Alexander Graham Bell, and the original company was also behind a wide range of revolutionary technologies that are today quite ubiquitous, including radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the operating system Unix (upon which both the Linux and the Android mobile phone operating systems were built), the C language which currently runs most large Internet servers even today, and the company helped make the internet a reality, with inventions including touch tone dialing, fiber optic cables and more.

Prior to the AT&T Bell System breakup, corded landline handsets were mainly built domestically by a hardware manufacturer owned by AT&T known as Western Electric (part of that would later become a company known as Avaya which today competes in the corporate internet VoIP telephony space), but when that ended, new handset manufacturers emerged, selling cheap, low-quality Asian products (Taiwan was the place of origin for most, as mainland China would not emerge as a low-cost manufacturing hub until more than a decade after the historic Richard Nixon visit to China in 1972). What really differentiated Western Electric's phones was their quality construction and the ability to continue working even after extremely tough abuse. All of that came at a very high price, which in 1982 was forced to be itemized as a telephone receiver rental fee.

Even if its becoming an anachronism, most of us can remember the classic landline dial tone, which can be listened to at the BBC's Free Sound Effects website, specifically by visiting

Of course, the classic "busy signal" is also familiar to more than a generation of people, which can be listened to by visiting https://sound-effects.bbcrewind.co.uk/search?q=07070087.

The AT&T archive has an entertaining, short clip of some vintage, 1970's advertisements for some of Western Electric's "Design Line" telephones.  The basic content of those phones were largely identical (they had the same exact dials/keypads, the same ringers, the same handsets, and the same internal wiring), but these were designer versions of landline phones meant to fit into a more modern household of the era.  The ad appears below, or at https://youtu.be/CyVe3dD-1mE:

Curiously, on September 11, 2017, some U.S. media outlets were waxing poetically about how the first iPhone was released 10 years ago … gee, a whole decade ago!  I thought to myself: "who cares?" because I've never had an iPhone, and I don't need or want one today, especially since the newest model costs nearly $1,000.  I'll pass; I can do a lot more with that kind of money than buying a little device that's designed to become obsolete as soon as the next model comes out.  My LG Android smartphone isn't the newest, but it's still functional and completely paid for (no contract).  I don't have to worry about losing or breaking it.  Besides, I've always been more of a Droid user than an Apple fan anyway.  But I remember the days when TV news would show lines of kids (today's Millennials) camping in front of Apple Stores waiting to get the latest, overpriced iPhone.  Although some believe otherwise, mobile phones are NOT the pinnacle of modern technology.  My view of Apple is one of resurrection rather than market domination.  I lived in Silicon Valley when former CEO John Sculley ran Apple at a time when the company was still teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

I have a smartphone, and while it is handy to have when I'm on the go, I'm certainly not attached to it.  Some is due to my age; I struggle to see a tiny screen without magnifying glasses and lasik surgery hasn't fixed that (although Google Assistant, or its better known iOS equivalent known as Siri, or at home with talking computer devices like Amazon Alexa/Echo, Google Home and others could mitigate that in the future).  Plenty disagree with me, but it's hardly a universal opinion.

Smartphones are NOT man's greatest invention for several reasons.  For one thing, the core function of making audio phone calls stinks on mobile phones -- I've never had an uninterrupted call on a smartphone.  Smartphones do a lot of cool things, but making telephone calls isn't one of them.  Plus for plenty of people, call mobility was always just a solution in search of a problem to solve.  That's because cordless telephones solved the biggest limitation traditional landlines suffered from decades earlier (having a cord of sufficient length to move around without getting tangled in it).

In fact, reports on the imminent death of the landline telephone are exaggerated.  That said, traditional landlines aren't exactly making a comeback, but as already noted, iPhones (smartphones) are't what killed the landline telephone, the internet is.

According to data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a majority of telephone lines serve medium and large business, institutional, and government customers, NOT individual consumers or households.  Hence, any discussion of traditional landline services is incomplete without an acknowledgement of who actually buys most of the lines: businesses and government, not households or consumers.  And, most businesses generally prefer landlines over wireless services.  Yet too many writers fail to acknowledge this reality when they boldly assert that smartphones have usurped traditional telephony technology.

Any discussion of traditional landlines is incomplete without acknowledgement of who actually buys most of the lines: businesses, not consumers according to FCC data

Articles written by young authors who grew up with mobile phones assert as fact that the latest trend is to ditch landlines for smartphones and that only oldsters still have landline phones.  Such stories always involve very selective disclosure of the facts.  Unfortunately, the Hollywood media machine has started to go with this narrative, too -- even among much older characters.  For example, in the Netflix sitcom Grace & Frankie about several septuagenarians, the character Frankie portrayed by Lily Tomlin has a conversation she doesn't really want to have with her now-gay ex-husband Sol (played by Sam Waterston), and thinking of how slamming the receiver down used to really hurt the other party's ears, she slams her iPhone down like it was an old Western Electric model phone, only to realize that she hasn't even hung up!


Also, in spite of widespread adoption of iPhones and Androids, the devices have not improved the nation's productivity, which has limited smartphones' broader societal impact.  The nation's last major increases in productivity followed the introduction of the personal computer and the widespread adoption of the internet (both trends were driven by businesses), but there has been absolutely no productivity gains following the introduction of the smartphone, which says it all.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity in the U.S. economy has stagnated in the years (see https://www.marketplace.org/2017/01/10/world/what-killed-us-productivity for more) following widespread adoption of mobile telephones. The mobile phone certainly isn't solely responsible for that, but it hasn't done anything to help matters, so mobile phones don't deserve undue praise, either.

Wireless smartphones were a big disruptor for Apple and Samsung, but not so much for telephone companies.  Based on wireless usage data, we know that 80% of people using mobile phones aren't even talking to anyone on the phone, they're using the mobile computer/internet functions.  But my nearly 50 year-old ears cannot hear the mobile phone ringing even at the loudest volume with a loud and annoying retro-ringtone.  Plus, it's uncomfortable for having a conversation of any duration on a smartphone.  Classic phone designs enabled users to hold the receiver and conduct a conversation without their hands (resting on the shoulder), but it's much tougher to do that with a smartphone.

I'm not naïve, people can be nostalgic for the days of perfect telephone reception on true landlines, but let's not forget, that's only half the story: the other half is that telephone bills were astronomical in those days, especially for long-distance calling. Where I grew up, even a call to a neighboring town was considered a toll call, and a simple conversation to a friend less than 5 miles away could cost $5.00 or more, so it wasn't all wonderful.

Today, it's an economic decision to not get (or switch from) a landline to mobile phone usage exclusively, and it's a rational reason to ditch (or not get) a landline.  The expense is redundant, and if you're not at home anyway, it doesn't serve much purpose.  But contrary to the perspective coming from kids who grew up using smartphones as pre-pubescent kids, mobile phone technology isn't what killed the landline, as I've already noted, the internet did (more specifically, Voice Over Internet Protocol/VoIP technology).  And the migration was driven by businesses who spent a whole lot more money on telephony than the average individual or household ever did.

Some technologies, such as pay telephones, have become largely obsolete by the widespread adoption of mobile phones, although they remain in settings like public transit hubs (airports, train stations, etc.). Most people who grew up in the seventies recall the episode of "The Brady Bunch" in which Mike Brady gets a pay telephone to limit his six kids' phone monopoly-usage in the home telephone ("Sorry, Right Number" [S1/E9] which originally aired on November 21, 1969). Many parents of that era may have secretly (or un-secretly) wished they could do the same, although the one line in the episode was when Mike Brady says to his wife Carol "Do you know how hard it is to get a payphone? You know all the red tape I had to go through with the phone company?" suggests it wasn't something the phone company was encouraging.
Nevertheless, for those interested in these increasingly rare pieces of phone history, its worth mentioning that Crosley Radio still sells replica pay telephones designed to look like payphones from the 1950's (see the company's website at http://www.crosleyradio.com/telephones/product-details?productkey=CR56&model=CR56-BK for details). Its fully-functional, although with several revisions. For example, the cord on the receiver isn't coated aluminum as payphone operators adopted to preserve the life of pay telephones. Also, the cord is not modular, so its hard-wired, meaning replacement or repairs are a bit more challenging. On the plus side is that the dial is actually touch-tone, but laid out as if it were an old, rotary dial. Finally, this phone model does not require a payment to receive a dial tone. But the device itself is considered by many historians to be quite life-like, and at $79.95, its not a terrible price.

A handful of better-researched articles [see one at https://seniorplanet.org/how-to-save-money-by-ditching-your-landline/] do acknowledge the impact of voice over internet protocol (also referred to as VoIP) technology, even if their editorial perspective still tries to promote mobile as being a more important driver of the trend away from landlines.

But again, the data shows proof that mobile phone technology is NOT responsible for rendering the landline telephone obsolete, the internet is.  And, as with so many other trends, it began with businesses, not consumers.  For smartphone device-lovers who are convinced that mobile phones are the technology that is replacing landlines, many are surprised and even disappointed to learn that VoIP phone service on the internet is the far bigger technology disruptor than the smartphone is, especially with the business community, although it is impacting consumer phone usage, too.

Data Shows a Less Flattering Picture of Mobile Phone-Only Consumers

It's only been since late 2016 that mobile-only households even outnumbered landlines (that evolution took ±30 years to occur), and only an ever-so-slight majority (one-half of one per cent). While people make the perfectly rational decision that it's a redundant expense to continue paying for both a mobile phone and a landline, the option is most feasible mainly in topographically flat states like Texas, Florida or Indiana. Elsewhere, mobile phone signals may be unreliable so smartphones don't work everywhere, sometimes even in different rooms within the same house.

Rolling hills, lack of cell towers, skyscrapers and many other things interrupt mobile reception in these areas. In more rural parts of the country, you may not even have a cellphone tower around for miles. If you need to make a phone call in those areas, you likely need a landline to do so. Broadband internet usually works in areas when mobile coverage is poor, except in rural, unpopulated areas where broadband may not be available, either.

I live in the biggest city in the country (NYC, with 8.5 million residents), and I don't get a reliable mobile phone signal in my own apartment because the nearest cell tower is blocked by skyscrapers and the others are located in New Jersey or Long Island, so the signal cuts out a lot (luckily, I can rely on VoIP calling at home). Think about that. I live in the biggest metropolis in the country (with more than 8.5 million people living in the same municipality), and I can't even use my mobile phone to make/ receive calls at home. I can only imagine what people who live in flyover country go through!

In spite of boastful claims made by mobile phone carriers and device manufacturers, mobile phones have only recently (and just barely) become a majority of the phones used by consumers in the U.S., and the data reveals more about those who have landlines compared to those who do not.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (the CDC's) National Center for Health Statistics gathers data on all kinds of trends about the state of Americans' health.  The in-person survey of 19,956 households is part of the CDC's National Health Interview Survey, still tracks landline use in order to assure it has truly representative samples in its ongoing health studies. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

According to the CDC's most recent survey (see https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/wireless201705.pdf for the results to that survey), 50.8% of homes and apartments had ONLY mobile phone service (which admittedly is up from 41% just 3 years ago) in the latter half of 2016, the first time such households had attained a slight majority in the survey.  The share of homes with both landlines and mobile phones was 39.4% (down from 47.7% 3 years ago), while 6.5% of families have a landline without mobile phone service, and 3.2% have no phone service at home at all.  Of note is that the CDC survey is the only one in the federal government's statistical system that is even tracking this estimate, and it plans to keep doing so.  Naturally, the pro-mobile phone folks were all over these results showing their supposed victory over landlines.  But the reality tells a different story.

Renters and younger adults are more likely to have just a mobile phone, so a predictable skew of young vs. old and non-affluent vs. affluent shows up in the results, but that over-simplifies the findings.  For example, rates of mobile phone-only homes were highest in the South, while homes in the Northeast were the most likely to still maintain landlines.  But this finding goes beyond incomes which are inversely correlated to cutting landlines, as well as the regional skews in income, which is higher in the Northeast compared to the South.  Instead, it speaks to a much more practical reality: it's much more feasible to rely only on mobile services in a region like the South where signals are less likely to be interrupted by great hills and skyscrapers (at least in major population centers) that can block mobile phone signals, as is the case in the Northeast.

Mobile phone-only homes have some other commonalities. "Wireless-only adults are more likely to drink heavily, more likely to smoke and be uninsured," even after factoring for age and income, says Stephen J. Blumberg, the study's co-author (and a landline user himself). "There certainly is something about giving up a landline that appeals to the same people who may engage in risky behavior".  Why that's so will require further research.

The picture of mobile-only users isn't terribly flattering overall.  They drink more heavily, are more likely to be smokers and less likely to have healthcare insurance, and are more heavily concentrated in the South.  People with mobile phones exclusively are more to be living with unrelated roommates, and be renters rather than homeowners, and skew more heavily Hispanic and black rather than white.  Not exactly the image that mobile phone device makers and mobile carriers like to present with ads of attractive, young, smartly-dressed, affluent Millennials featured in their advertising, is it?

As The Atlantic reported (see HERE), the overall picture is that the more stable your living situation, the more likely you are to have a landline.  And, just as richer Americans have the means to adopt new technology like mobile phones early, they also have the means to hang on to the old technology they are already attached to, like landlines, longer: Why choose one when you can have both?

VoIP Phones Go Mainstream

Rather than personally going with a mobile phone only (which I don't care for), I personally compromised with a hybrid-solution that works great: a voice-over-internet-protocol (a VoIP-based) solution which uses my broadband internet to make and receive telephone calls (I pay for broadband anyway rather than sharing it with 20 people who live around me) only it's not linked to my internet provider, so I can readily switch from Verizon Fios to Time Warner/Spectrum cable, to RCN or another competitor).

I also find the internet much better at a computer with a real keyboard and big monitor rather than a tiny, touch-screen on a mobile phone, which as an experience leaves much to be desired.  Cable companies and other internet providers now routinely offer "triple play" packages, although I initially went with Vonage, but I then switched to Ooma, slashing my costs progressively with each change to the point that my "landline" now costs me less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Note that the CDC's definition of a landline actually DOES include for Internet-connected phones — also known as VoIP phones — because the question that's asked in the survey is: "Do you have a telephone in your home that is currently working and is not a cellphone?"

U.S. businesses are dumping (or have already dumped) analog phone systems in favor of cheaper, better-quality, internet-powered phone systems.  The average person working for a company impacted by this has no idea, and that's proof of how ubiquitous internet telephony has become.  Voice over internet protocol-powered telephone systems offer lots of features that the phone company once charged extra for (things like Caller ID and Call Waiting) and most are included in the cost of maintaining an internet-connected office network.  Today, businesses can get a sophisticated phone system with many lines for a cost much lower than old phone systems.  Companies like Vonage [https://www.vonage.com/], 8x8 [https://www.8x8.com/], Shoretel [https://www.shoretel.com/] (now Mitel), Jive [https://jive.com/], Cisco, and Avaya all sell VoIP-based phone systems (as do others) which have enabled many companies to replace expensive landlines with sophisticated phone systems that offer all of the same benefits for much less money.  Today, a lot more VoIP landlines exist than mobile plans.  But a few companies that began in the business VoIP telephone market have expanded to the consumer market.  More details follow.

VoIP Telephone Companies for Consumers

Because all VoIP phone companies' business model is to maximize self-service, most won't even offer an option to send you a phone bill by mail (although broadband internet and television services are often billed together and typically send monthly bills), and instead require automatic billing to a payment card or direct deduction from a checking account.  Know that credit cards offer you some protections for unwanted services that debit cards and monthly checking account deductions do not offer under Federal law.

Vonage is the best-known player in this arena [https://www.vonage.com/personal] which is considered to be the granddaddy of VoIP services (although they have both business and residential customers), and Vonage is also one of the more expensive VoIP providers for consumer packages.  Right now, Vonage has a one-year introductory price of $9.99/month, followed by $29.99/month after that.  However, Vonage does pay for the VoIP box needed to make your phones work, so that's a decent savings, and 911 services are included in your monthly charge.  But I don't believe that $29.99/month is all that much cheaper than analog landline telephone services are.

BasicTalk [http://www.basictalk.com/] offers a lower, longer-term cost (the price remains at $9.99/month, compared to Vonage which triples your price after the first year) but with fewer fancy features like call forwarding.  BasicTalk's underlying service is actually provided by Vonage (similar to how both Chevrolet and Cadillac are cars made and sold by General Motors).  Note that it has traditionally charged an account 'activation' fee, which you could say is really the cost to port your phone number over which BasicTalk claims is free.  Most of the other VoIP providers will charge a number porting fee instead, but regardless of what they call the fee, the amount paid out-of-pocket is roughly in-line with their competitors.  Their VoIP box is pretty inexpensive and was sold at Walmart and other retailers, though it may only be carried seasonally.

Ooma Telo [https://www.ooma.com/telo/] is my personal favorite VoIP provider.  With Ooma, you pay slightly more for its VoIP box up-front (around $90), but their services are cheaper in the long-run.  Based on my experience, Ooma's Telo service has been great; the only caveat is that the dial tone your hear in the receiver sounds a little different from the one you're probably used to.  They are more of a VoIP box manufacturer, which explains why they sell hardware.  I switched to them after my Vonage introductory pricing expired, and I paid to port my number over, and now my monthly landline (including 911 services) costs less me than a cup of coffee!  They also offer additional premium features like call forwarding and number blocking for a few extra dollars more each month; I skipped those (if you opt for the free trial, they'll continue billing you for it), but the cost wouldn't be very much to upgrade in the future should you want them.

Google Voice [https://voice.google.com/] is another option from technology giant's Google (now Alphabet), which was originally launched nearly a decade ago with some fanfare when Google bought a phone management tech firm then known as GrandCentral which rings both your landline and cellphone simultaneously and also offers text transcription of your voicemail messages.  Its slightly more complex to set up, but if you read on, I promise the info. will be useful.

When people started dumping expensive traditional landlines or not getting them in the first place, Google Voice services became less relevant (although its international calling rates remain among the cheapest anywhere).  If you already have a gmail email account but not a Google Voice account, you can create a Google Voice [https://voice.google.com/] account at no charge in just a minute, and it does not require a contract.  Login to gmail, then in another browser window, type https://voice.google.com/.  Today, with Google Voice, you can also create a fee-free (mostly, read on....) landline for your home and/or office.  It's done by purchasing an OBi Talk VoIP device [https://www.obitalk.com/info/googlevoice] sold by Silicon Valley-based OBihai Technologies (it's a small box that plugs into your Internet router) for about $50.  Your analog telephone plugs into the modular phone jack on the OBi Talk device itself.  Note that on January 4, 2018, it was announced that Polycom had acquired Obihai Technologies (see the press release HERE).

After an online account setup with OBihai, the OBi Talk device will then connect to your Google Voice account and act as a portal to your Google Voice services much like Vonage or Ooma do without requiring a landline or cell phone that the service needs to be forwarded to (see a good ComputerWorld article about this HERE for more details).  Once done, your computer does not need to be turned on, and you do not need to be logged into Google for it to work.  As a plus, Google Voice service also offers the ability to block particular phone numbers for free, and free voicemail transcription to text and/or email, and some of the cheapest international calling rates around.  The one downside is that 911 isn't included, so you must pay a third-party to provide that service (Obihai offers that through a partner e911 company which bills separately), and I would caution that this is something you really need, because its too late to get it when your house is on fire, or you need an ambulance, so do not casually dismiss it.

Beware that Google has not committed to provide continued official support to VoIP through OBi Talk service forever.  In 2014, the two companies had a legitimate dispute over the security protocols that almost ended this VoIP service (although it was eventually resolved, see http://blog.obihai.com/2014/09/google-voice-and-obihai-update.html for more on the outcome of that) but first-generation Obihai devices became incompatible with new Google Voice security protocols http://blog.obihai.com/2017/11/end-of-line-for-google-voice-on-obi100.html, so there are no long-term guarantees .  Google has also been known to kill very popular services like Google Reader in the past, so just beware that unlike with Vonage, Basic Talk or Ooma, Google/Alphabet could decide in the future that it no longer wants to be in the telephone business, and the service is not guaranteed just because you bought a VoIP box from OBihai.

In the tech world, there's a saying "if you're not paying for the product, you ARE the product" and in Google's case, there's definitely truth to that, as the company makes millions on advertising.  But most people feel that by allowing Google to mine your email and web browsing activity to allow advertisers the ability to target ads more precisely is a fair exchange for Google's many free services.  But if Google cannot monetize a service, it has historically been willing to pull the plug on it.  Google Reader users learned that only too well in 2013 even though the motto of Google's current corporate code of conduct is: "Don't be evil".

OBihai requires that the OBi Talk device must still be under warranty protection to remain compliant with latest security updates that Google requires (if you buy an extended warranty for the OBihai VoIP box, you get around the issue of what OBihai calls ‘firmware updates’, which happen automatically).  Google Voice/OBi Talk does NOT provide 911 service, so you must use a third-party e911 provider for an extra fee to get that (they have a partner which charges $25/year, or about $2/month), or you can simply add the local phone numbers for fire, police and paramedics to your speed-dial list, but dialing 911 won't work so you'll have to tell the police, firemen, or paramedics where you actually live when you call (they can't tell by your phone number).

As far as emergency e911 services, if you have a newer-model AT&T Trimline [https://telephones.att.com/pd/201/210M-White-Trimline-corded-telephone] corded telephone, those phones have buttons for each of these things already built-in (at the top of the handset), you just have to program them into the phone itself.  Or, you can just keep a post-it near the phone with the relevant phone numbers handy if you elect not to pay extra for e911 services.  It's vital to give appropriate consideration to this issue, because you won't have the luxury of waiting if you need an ambulance or your house has been robbed or is on fire!  The FCC has a document on e911 services you can download HERE.

The main benefit is Google Voice/OBihai option gives you a landline where one might not have existed at a very low cost.  Beware of service contracts with VoIP phone companies -- some services have them (like Vonage), others do not.  I also recommend paying for VoIP telephone services with a credit but not a debit card or checking account deduction, as you can dispute charges you have not authorized on a credit card.

Outside of the Google Voice arrangement, Obihai also sells Obi Talk VoIP boxes that do not require a Google gmail account.  These are reliable, and avoid potential Google-mandated firmware updates, but still has the same issue without e911 services being provided.  The service is reliable and inexpensive.

If you still believe that the iPhone killed landline telephone service, you probably also believe fake news found on Facebook and Twitter.  I've offered verifiable facts to prove otherwise.  VoIP is the technology disruptor, not mobile telephony.

1 comment:

Eleanor Eiland said...

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